His life had no stories. Adama S. was born in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in 1981, and he never went to school. His father grew millet, corn and tapioca on a very small piece of land, barely enough to feed the family. At twelve, Adama started working as an apprentice at a mechanical workshop; three years later, he was able to fix electro-generating equipment. He probably would have stayed there for a long time if his boss hadn't died.
The workshop closed. Now unemployed, already twenty years old, he started to wonder what he was going to do with his life. He had heard so many stories about relatives and neighbours who had gone to Europe, and how well they were doing. He had saved 200 euros: his decision seemed obvious.
First, I applied for a visa at the French Embassy, but they wouldn't give it to me. What I wanted was to go to Europe, I didn't care where. I was told that first I had to go to Spain, because it's the only European country with an African border, and from there you can go wherever you want.
The trip got off to a good start. At the beginning of 2002, Adama bought a bus ticket to Bamako, the capital of Mali. He slept in the station for a few days, and found out that he should take another bus to Gao; there, for a hundred euros, he got a ride with a van that would carry him across the Sahara to Tamanrasset, Algeria. The journey took five nights. During the day, he and the other twenty passengers hid in caves and waited for sunset.
He was still far away from Morocco: he had to go all the way through Algeria, travelling by night, hiding by day. Sometimes he walked, sometimes he could hitch a ride by truck. Sometimes, he stayed without transportation for four of five days in an oasis, always fearing the police. It took him almost two months to cross the desert and the Atlas Mountains, and reach the Moroccan border. There, smugglers took him across the border; after four nights of unbearable walking, he arrived at Oujda. Then a bus took him to Nador, the Moroccan city near Melilla.
Melilla is a Spanish territory on the African continent separated from Morocco by a wire mesh fence. Every night, Adama would walk along the fence, looking at Europe (so near, so very near), trying to think of a way in. He knew that some had jumped, but that didn't seem so easy. Three years later, migrants would invent the avalanche technique, which involves hundreds of people throwing themselves together against the fence; in those days however, jumping was an individual endeavour.
Once he got too close, and the Moroccan police arrested him and deported him to Algeria. Adama made his way back into Morocco, only to be deported again two months later. Adama felt defeated. He had run out of money long ago. It was the olive harvesting season; Adama worked for two months and got enough money to go back to Morocco. But this time, he headed to Rabat. The fence at Melilla seemed insurmountable and he wanted to try the water route, by the famous pateras, single-motor, ten-metre long, very precarious vessels.
In Rabat, I spent a year sleeping on the streets, eating from the garbage. I didn't have a dime, I knew nobody, I couldn't get a job. Not even the Moroccans had jobs. I suffered a lot. I wanted to go back to my country, but I needed money for that too.
One day, desperate, Adama turned himself over to the police in an attempt to be sent home. An officer shouted that if he wanted to go back, he'd better do it himself. Adama thought he had reached the bottom.
In my country, at least I was able to eat. I felt very miserable. But I kept fighting, because I had to make a life for myself.
Then his luck started to change. He met a Malian who offered him a place in his room and put him in touch with a man in the patera business. This man, a Ghanaian, proposed a deal: if Adama could find twenty clients willing to pay between 1000 and 1500 euros, he could travel free. Around that time, Adama was finally able to call home to let his parents know he was still alive, if still in Africa. It was then that he learned that his father had died.
My mother told me he had been poisoned, but I never found out what really happened, because I could never get back to my country.
At first, Adama couldn't find any clients; nobody trusted him. Little by little, however, he made his reputation and, by the end of 2004, Adama had already sent forty travellers. He had earned his trip. He had spent two years waiting for this moment.
"Young migrants often fill jobs at the lowest end of the labour market, or jobs that nationals are not willing to do."
From Rabat, a truck took him and twenty other men to a shelter in the desert. There, they had to wait until the police officers, who had been bribed by the smugglers were on duty. They spent several days without water. Adama saw others drink their urine but he couldn't do it. Then, one afternoon, they were all put back in a truck that took them to a secluded place on the Atlantic coast. The smugglers made them throw away their identity papers before getting on the boat.
On the beach, in the moonlight, Adama had another shock: the Moroccans who worked for the smugglers robbed them of everything they had, money, watches, clothes. Adama tried to defend himself and one of them cut him in the hand with a knife. Wounded, he got in the patera. His shirt and his shorts were all he had left in the world, but at long last he was sailing to Europe.
The captain was a fisherman from the Gambia; the trip was his pay. He asked Adama to watch the compass. They had to keep a heading of 340 degrees - if they went off course they were dead. He said the trip was easy and they'd be in the Canary Islands in less than a day. Even if the boat was wrecked, he said, he and Adama would survive: they were the only ones who had plastic fuel containers to float on until someone came to their rescue.
That calmed me down. At least I would survive. But I was very nervous anyway:
I had never seen the sea before.
The first hours were calm: at midday, the sea grew rough but the patera held on. In the afternoon, they saw an island; soon after the Spanish coastguard stopped the boat and took them off. Adama's relief was brief: they mistook him for the captain, and questioned him. Adama didn't give away the real captain - among adventurers, he'd say later, one can't do such things. In the end the Gambian was identified, arrested and deported. Everybody else received food and clothes at a government shelter, where they spent the standard forty days.
(During the quarantine, the Spanish police question the immigrants. For those found to have no legal grounds to remain in the EU, orders of expulsion are issued, though they generally can't be executed because the identities of the immigrants can't be determined, or because their countries won't accept them. That's why they get rid of their documentation. Hiding one's identity is a legal loophole, a paradox by which thousands of Africans manage to stay in Europe.)
In the Canary Islands, Adama didn't know what would become of him. One night the immigration officers told him he was being taken to Madrid the next day, to be released. There, Adama agreed to spend three months learning Spanish in a Castilian town, on a programme of the Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado. In May 2005, he was back in Madrid; it was time to start his new life.
For a month, Adama slept in a park along with dozens of other Africans. Finally, a man from Sierra Leone offered to give Adama his work permit. In return, Adama would pay him 100 euros each month.
And I said yes, because I didn't come here to do nothing.
Thousands of immigrants in Spain are in similar situations; they are exploited by other immigrants who have papers, and by their local bosses. Now, Adama works as a gardener for a construction company and lives in a suburb near Madrid in a room too expensive for him. He makes 650 euros per month, half of which he spends on lodging, 100 on food, 50 on transportation, 100 for his exploiter. He sends some money to his mother, nothing left over.
No, I still haven't found what I was looking for when I left home. I don't have money, I don't have papers. I went through a lot to get here. I slept in the streets, I walked through the desert, but now I'm here and I'm still in a lot of pain. I knew I would have to suffer to get here, but I thought that once I arrived the suffering would be over.
Adama insists that he likes Spain a lot, though sometimes the people, he says, can be a little racist (they look at him funny). But the government is kind to African people. The papers are his main problem. Lawyers told him that he has to wait for three years to get the document that will turn him into a legal worker. That's why he gave all his money to a local man who said he was going to expedite the process and then disappeared. When these things happen, he says, he feels defeated, and he worries about time. Time passes: he was twenty when he left his country and now he's twenty-four and nothing's changed; his life is slipping away. Adama says he's much too worried about the future to have fun. At times, on the weekend, he plays soccer, but he says he doesn't think about women: he already has too many problems.
I'm not saying if I would like to be with someone or not. If I looked for a woman, I'd find one. But what I need right now is my money. I left a lot of women in my country to come here, looking for my money. When I get some, I can go back and get married. But first I have to make my money, so my children can have a future. If my father had done what I'm doing now, I wouldn't have to suffer so much.
Adama's story may be true or it may not; but it has the ring of truth. Many Africans trying to avoid being deported from Spain pretend they're escaping from war and ask for political asylum. Or they say they're from countries that wouldn't take them back. Thousands are making up life stories, looking for a better life than the one they left behind. Sometimes, salvation rides on having a good story. But salvation can be tough to reach.
If things stay like this, will you go back to your country?
How am I supposed to go back without money? What am I going to say to my mother, to my family? It's impossible. I'd rather die. If I go back like this, I would die of shame. No, I can't go back. It would be the worst shame.